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“I have the temperament of a harlot": on the life of Steven Runciman

Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight revels in the life of an untypical historian.

In the mid-1970s, when Steven Runciman was in his own eighth decade, he became a frequent house guest of the archaeologist (and husband of Agatha Christie) Max Mallowan. Like all who met him, the Mallowans were impressed by this charming and intellectually brilliant man, who was one of the best-known historians in the country. But one evening Mallowan confided to a friend that he had been shocked by his last conversation with Runciman, who told him “that he felt his life had been a failure because of his gayness”. Mallowan was dismayed not only because such soul-baring was startlingly out of character. As the friend later said, “I remember Max saying with huge indignation how tragic and wrong it was that Steven should feel this way.”

Tragic and wrong indeed. People differ in how they measure their own success or failure, but by almost any standards Runciman had led a successful life. His many books on Byzantine and medieval history had been acclaimed by specialists and avidly consumed by general readers; he had received a knighthood and became a Companion of Honour in 1984; he was an honorary whirling dervish and was appointed Grand Orator of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the age of 97 he complained that “the only friend I now have who is older than me is the Queen Mother”; yet one would need to analyse the guest list for his 90th birthday party, to which he invited 400 friends, to be sure of the accuracy of that remark.

The Runcimans were not old nobility – Steven’s father, a Liberal politician, was made a viscount in the 1930s – but they were grand, with family wealth built on industry and shipping, so Steven was born with a fair quantity of silver cutlery in his mouth. He won a scholarship to Eton, where his friends included Eric Blair (George Orwell) and Cyril Connolly, and then won a place at Cambridge at the early age of 17. Effortlessly well connected, and supported by a private income, he spent his student years mingling with Bright Young Things, Bloomsberries, Apostles and assorted littérateurs, many of them gay, and few of them entirely discreet.

This phase of Runciman’s life begins to feel like a generic period piece: the silk dressing gowns, the emerald green parakeet in the college room, the amateur theatricals (Dadie Rylands, a star of the Cambridge stage, was an intimate friend), the portrait by Cecil Beaton, who exclaimed: “I should adore to model him. He’s so huge and ugly and strong with the most fruity voice.” When Runciman became a junior fellow of Trinity, his colleagues included Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess was one of his favoured pupils. Here, too, it feels as if we are stepping back into a familiar world – though Runciman never became a communist and was not invited to join the Apostles, apparently because he held middle-of-the-road Liberal views.

Yet, all the while, something much more untypical was happening: this Bright Young Thing was turning himself, gradually, with very little help from his academic superiors, into a world authority on a peculiarly difficult area of European history, learning Russian, Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic and Armenian in order to do so. The book of his doctoral thesis, about a little-known 10th-century Byzantine emperor, was both scholarly and witty, and remains in print today. That was followed by the first major study in English of the early Bulgarian empire – again, hardly the stuff of cocktail-party conversation, though it did earn him a drink or two, on subsequent visits to Sofia, with Tsar Boris III.

In 1937, when Runciman was 34, a large inheritance from his grandfather enabled him to resign his Cambridge fellowship and become an independent scholar. But other duties soon intervened: the Second World War sent him back to Sofia, where he was given, on Guy Burgess’s recommendation, the job of press attaché to the British Legation. After the legation’s expulsion from Bulgaria he spent the rest of the war in Cairo, Jerusalem, Turkey and Syria; two years followed at the British Council in Athens. The roll-call of his friends from this period ticks many expected boxes, from Freya Stark to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Freed at last of formal duties in 1947, he spent the next 53 years doing what he enjoyed: writing, lecturing, travelling, hobnobbing with royalty and Hollywood stars, and serving on many great-and-good committees. Until 1966, he was also a laird of the Hebridean island of Eigg. His great History of the Crusades (1951-54) was followed by ten other book-length studies, including one on the Malaysian state of Sarawak; and if he never became a household name, in the style of Kenneth Clark or A J P Taylor, he was about as famous as a historian can be, in the modern age, without appearing on television.

Runciman was reluctant to be biographised, though not because he thought his own life was without interest: he had a rich stock of anecdotes, some of them quite self-regarding, and was happy to publish many of them in his 1991 book of memoirs, A Traveller’s Alphabet. The reluctance stemmed from his fear that younger biographers would, as he put it, be “insensitive to the atmosphere of the past and unaware of that transient element, its humour”.

He should not have worried. Minoo Dinshaw, who is too young to have known him personally, has performed an astonishing feat of empathy as well as research. Outlandish Knight – the title is from a ballad – is based on reams of private correspondence, interviews and unpublished memoirs, in addition to the obvious printed sources (as well as many unobvious ones relating to people and events from Northumberland to Istanbul to Thailand). With a less talented author, the result might have been a Sargasso Sea of information. But what keeps the reader’s interest on every page is, precisely, this biographer’s sensitivity to atmosphere and his humorous awareness.

Minor characters are conjured up with delicious brevity. Cyril Connolly’s father was “a retired officer, chronic drinker and expert in the classification of snails”. The poet Elinor Wylie was “tall and of avian, fragile thinness, with luminous white skin”. George Cukor, the film director, was “physically unattractive, especially to himself; wounded, charming”. Of the marriage of the homosexual 2nd Baron Faringdon, the Labour peer who once began a speech to the upper house “My dears” instead of “My Lords”, Dinshaw states concisely: “A sailor attended the wedding night.”

Admittedly, the book has the weaknesses of its own strengths. In places, the finely crafted prose can become a distraction, as each well-chosen adjective is recalibrated by an even better-chosen adverb. And Dinshaw’s immersion in Runciman’s published works is such that he often writes as if the reader already knew them, commenting shrewdly on matters of style and technique but forgetting to supply elementary facts. Yet the strengths predominate – near-omniscient thoroughness, gentle humour, psychological precision.

This is not at all an uncritical biography. Dinshaw notes Runciman’s less appealing qualities: vanity, snobbery, occasional feline cruelty (there is a wince-making episode involving the humiliation of an earnest young American academic) and, where his elder brother’s ill-fated marriage to Rosamond Lehmann was concerned, “envy, indiscretion and mischief-making”. On the positive side, there was a golden vein of generosity in his character, and keen sympathy for outsiders and underdogs. But Dinshaw strikes a keynote when he refers to “Steven’s long-cultivated facility for civilian adaptability, self-preservation and camouflage”.

Which brings us back to the question of “gayness”. It is only on page 515 that we learn for the first time that Runciman had “a long career of active sexuality”. Up to that point, the book makes only brief suggestions of Runciman having had physical relationships with a few friends, mostly in his early adulthood; but decades have passed without the appearance of anyone who could be called, in the full sense, a lover. And even Dinshaw’s exhaustive researches cannot find one. What he has discovered is a few retrospective comments, late in life, boasting of innumerable casual conquests. As Runciman told a friend: “I have the temperament of a harlot, and so am free of emotional complications.”

In the one judgement that seems off-key in his biography, Dinshaw writes that the reason why Runciman played such a delicate game of sexual semi-concealment was that he believed homosexuality was “an inarguable offence against God”. There is no other evidence of any such hang-up. Surely, it is simpler to suppose that if he had formed a deep relationship with anyone he might have cast ambivalence aside; but, for a man of his generation, dependence on a succession of casual pick-ups would not have been something to celebrate, except with the closest, most like-minded friends.

So, even that mournful confession of “failure” was untruthful. Runciman certainly had never tried to lead a heterosexual life, but neither had he ever gone looking for a long-term gay lover and soulmate. Here is a man who, in his private life, as in his historical work and his public achievements, had done exactly what he wanted.

Noel Malcolm’s most recent book is “Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the 16th-Century Mediterranean World” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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